“You’ve got to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now I think ya going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. You’re gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it you're gonna do the same for him. That’s a team, gentlemen, and either, we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.”
- Any Given Sunday
One of the best things about working in politics is looking into the eyes of your colleagues, and seeing belief. They believe in each other, they believe in the team, and they believe in the cause.
And they know that winning the next election is The Most Important Thing Today.
I fully bought into this mentality after the 2016 election.
Like many around me, I was distraught after Trump’s victory. Others wrote long and often thoughtful Facebook posts, went to protest marches, and organized “resistance” salons; I figured out how to get voter roll data, read up on polling methodologies, and ultimately applied my data geek skills to start the polling company Change Research in 2017.
Change Research’s founding principles attempted to make clear what we were up against, and the urgency of our response:
This is a very dangerous time for our country and the world. We want better for the U.S., and we are doing everything we can to help elect ethical, competent people who will foster a scientific and humane society.
I believed that Donald Trump and those around him were a significant threat to American democracy, and I founded a company to combat his anti-democratic urges right now.
I personally lived that “right now” mentality from day one: the election in 2018 was The Most Important Thing Today. If Republicans held both the House and the Senate in the 2018 election, American democracy would be in deep trouble. If Democrats won control of Congress (or at least, the House), Trump would likely be held in check.
My colleagues and I prepared for the 2018 election with a glamorous address, 165 University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, early home of both PayPal and Google. Our reality was anything but glamorous: seven of us shared a handful of small white plastic Ikea desks, crammed into two tiny rooms. We had a fridge full of La Croix and a view of the corner of the parking lot where restaurant workers took their vaping breaks.
Publicly, we were a flashy political tech startup funded by Reid Hoffman and Hillary Clinton. Nate Silver talked us up as the hipsters who were brash enough to poll Wyoming. We were nimble and able to get accurate polling numbers more quickly than anyone else in the industry.
Privately, we were a dozen or so people, mostly political neophytes, working our tails off to figure out how we could cobble together the team and technology to run over 500 polls in just a few months.
I’ve been part of some very aggressive, hard-working teams, both in companies I’ve founded and as an early employee at PayPal and LinkedIn. The Change Research team – squarely focused on The Most Important Thing Today – was without question the hardest working team I’ve ever been a part of.
And it was focused on now, now, now. Product roadmaps, quarterly planning, and the long term could wait. The election was coming and we were all in on The Most Important Thing Today.
Turning The Corner
By 2020, the company was in a different place, and I was too. On July 20, 2020, the world was more or less locked down, Change Research celebrated its third anniversary as a company, and Joe Biden seemed to be on a good path to winning the 2020 election.
With the 2020 election 3.5 months away, it was time for me to move beyond The Most Important Thing Today. The company’s organizational structure was not sustainable and we needed to re-define it. And, this was the right time to create a non-political business unit that would allow us to grow both our business and our impact.
My team, meanwhile, was focused on The Most Important Thing Today, the 2020 election. Again, we were working with hundreds of political campaigns and organizations, many of whom would shape their strategies based on our poll findings. Our work was high stakes, intense, and immediate.
Employees at political polling firms are working largely with campaign managers who are incredibly dedicated to their immediate electoral goals. These campaign managers have, in many cases, upended their lives and moved to cities and states to work with long-shot candidates they believe in.
For any of them – political candidates, campaign managers, pollsters – to say they are thinking about something after election day would invite mockery. A football player thinks about next season only after his last playoff game, and a pollster thinks about the next election only after this one is over.
Two of the things held most sacred in the practice of politics in the US today are
help your party win
keep your eyes on the current election
By thinking beyond the current election, and building out an entity that explicitly wasn’t concerned with partisan politics, I was breaking both rules. I was ignoring The Most Important Thing Today.
Mountains and Hills
After a previous startup experience, I wrote The Visionary and The Pivoter. It compares my very modest successes building Circle of Moms with Reid Hoffman’s home run building LinkedIn. And it explains a big part of why: Reid was climbing big mountains while I was climbing little hills.
An organization’s leaders should be thinking about the long-term, and what the game looks like five stages out.
When I worked at LinkedIn (2004-2007), the company, led by Reid, was great at finding mountains and pointing toward them. Even though LinkedIn didn’t always have the same relentless urgency that I have often seen in Democratic politics, it headed in a smart, new direction, clearing the path for large, transformative wins.
The most effective organizational leaders are thinking many steps ahead, using a process roughly like the following:
What are the problems we face? What opportunities exist to move the ball forward?
How can new structures – organizations, technologies, laws, cultural norms, incentives – solve those problems and create new opportunities?
How can I or my organization be a part of building those new structures?
How can we break that down into five year - one year - three month - two week - one day stretches, and execute?
I have observed this sort of thinking more commonly in tech companies than in political organizations, but there are certainly strong leaders in both spheres.
The Big Mountain
There is a temptation among my friends on the left to say “the most important thing is to help Democrats win.” While I certainly want Democrats to win – and have spent the bulk of the last five years trying to beat Trump and elect Democrats – I don’t believe that “elect Democrats” constitutes a vision.
We need a bigger vision, and a bigger mountain to climb. Abundance Progressivism as sketched by Ezra Klein and Derek Thompson – housing production, clean energy abundance, the effective delivery of services, managing for outcomes – is the best rendering of that mountain I’ve seen.
I believe it’s time for tech to come to the table and help climb that mountain. My fellow entrepreneurs and leaders in Silicon Valley can play a big role in working with experts and policy makers to fill in the details of Abundance Progressivism, define success, lay out key milestones, and start executing on them.
The 2022 election is near, and I’m grateful for the many talented, passionate people who are focused on The Most Important Thing Today.
But whatever happens in this year’s elections, the savviest leaders will keep their eyes on the big mountaintop of Abundance. Here at Modern Power, and in many other civic spaces, people are starting to fill in the details of that vision; they are drawing the pathway to the mountaintop. The pathway will include both policy documents and focused electoral work, it will be carved out using the right messaging and in thousands of conversations.
The same energy that drives electoral success can be harnessed for long-term efforts. If we want to solve the big problems of the 21st century, we will need it.
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Good post Mike. We need much much more. Abundance agenda. Growth mindset.
Love the long term vs “right now” dichotomy.
Reminds me of some company situations I’ve seen where the team is caught in the “hell cycle” of putting out fires, responding tactically to competitor moves, and focusing on the immediate next earnings report. Everyone is working hard because everything is urgent. Some people even get promotions for addressing urgent issues. But eventually people burn out and get disenchanted with the whole thing. And then there are fewer people left to manage the fires.
It’s not the way to build a lasting company, and certainly not the way to build a lasting political movement...